Formed from wood pulp or plant fiber, paper is chiefly used for written communication. The earliest paper was papyrus, made from reeds by the ancient Egyptians. Paper was made by the Chinese in the second century, probably by a Chinese court official named Cai Lun. His paper was made from such things as tree bark and old fish netting. Recognized almost immediately as a valuable secret, it was 500 years before the Japanese acquired knowledge of the method. Papermaking was known in the Islamic world from the end of the eighth century A.D.
Knowledge of papermaking eventually moved westward, and the first European paper mill was built at Jativa, in the province of Valencia, Spain, in about 1150. By the end of the 15th century, paper mills existed in Italy, France, Germany, and England, and by the end of the 16th century, paper was being made throughout Europe.
Paper, whether produced in the modern factory or by the most careful, delicate hand methods, is made up of connected fibers. The fibers can come from a number of sources including cloth rags, cellulose fibers from plants, and, most notably, trees. The use of cloth in the process has always produced high-quality paper. Today, a large proportion of cotton and linen fibers in the mix create many excellent papers for special uses, from wedding invitation paper stock to special paper for pen and ink drawings.
The method of making paper is essentially a simple one—mix up vegetable fibers, and cook them in hot water until the fibers are soft but not dissolved. The hot water also contains a base chemical such as lye, which softens the fibers as they are cooking. Then, pass a screen-like material through the mixture, let the water drip off and/or evaporate, and then squeeze or blot out additional water. A layer of paper is left behind. Essential to the process are the fibers, which are never totally destroyed, and, when mixed and softened, form an interlaced pattern within the paper itself. Modern papermaking...